What follows is a conversation between J.R. Wilco and Jesus Gomez that began as a discussion about Gregg Popovich's late-game play-calling and got progressively deeper/weirder as it continued. Enjoy, if you are as crazy as we are.
OK. Sports psychology time. There are all kinds of reasons why players do things. Why they play a certain way and do the things they do. Why should coaches be any different?
I am not someone to second-guess Pop. I usually take the approach that I couldn't do any better and his five rings are enough to defend him from any criticism. In fact, I usually go the other way and invent scenarios where an imaginary version of Popovich (CIA Pop) knows all things basketball, sees all things NBA and designs elaborate stratagems that not only explain away any questionable decisions but also prove his genius and end in championships.
But in the case of Game 7 against the Clippers, none of my usual modes work for me. I can't reconcile what happened with what I know of Pop or what I want to believe of him. Which brings me to me to the psychology of Pop as it concerns this current Spurs team.
Duncan could play for another year or he could decide tomorrow to walk away from the game forever. Manu looked done at times against LA, but that was true of him in 2013 and he turned the clock back to revenge-dunk all over Bosh and Allen. With Duncan returning, Manu is at least 50/50 to push himself one more time.
But everything changes if the Spurs repeat. Tim is tempted to go out on top like Robinson did. Manu is almost certainly gone.
So you are saying CIA Pop threw the game so they would come back?
If anything, it was a subconscious desire to keep it all just a little while longer. I can't find any other reason why he wouldn't have called a timeout to draw up a different play after the Clippers were allowed to see the alley-oop coming.
It weirdly makes some sense but I'm an Occam's razor guy. That's a lot of assumptions.
Fine. Then give me a razored explanation for going with a low percentage play that the opposition knows is coming with the game on the line.
There's only a second left. He thinks that's the best play he can draw up. If he had a better one, he would have used that one. Simple. Pop is awesome at most parts of his job but he's not great thinking on his feet or doesn't have a ton of one-second-left plays drilled.
Like I said, it sort of makes sense for a guy who has been around those two for so long to want them back. But to -- in the heat of battle -- make a decision that would make that more likely to happen, consciously or otherwise, seems far-fetched.
He's getting older. And as he ages he talks less and less about retiring. He sees Kawhi maturing and for the first time in his career has line of sight to a successful run post-Duncan. He has everything he needs besides time. And the clock is ticking more for his players than for him.
All of that is to say this: to me, he didn't coach that play like it was the Spurs' last chance. He coached it as if he had plenty of bullets left in the gun -- a "if this doesn't work, we'll get them next year" kind of thing. Far-fetched or not, that's what it seemed like to me and I'm trying to find a way to make sense of it given what I know about him.
I hate to be that guy (not really. It's super easy being the skeptic) but he is getting older and maybe he really means it when he says basketball isn't everything.
Let's play sports psychologist one more time. What if Pop wants Manu and Tim to remember him as someone who wasn't consumed with a will to win as much as someone who liked to compete?
Let's say, for a second, he threw the game. Maybe it was because he wanted them to retire knowing defeat one last time and being fine with it. If we are going down this road, we could come up with a lot of different motivations, don't you think?
First, I am uncomfortable with talking about him "throwing the game." I'm don't think he did anything of the sort. Throwing a game is an intentional act that goes against every competitive instinct that exists. What I'm thinking is something far more subtle.
As for what kind of motivations we could come up with, you're right. It'd be easy to invent a nearly endless list of possible reasons. But I'm not interested in that.
I'm just trying to find a scenario that fits the situation and plausibly explains what happened. I want it to make sense to me. That's the bottom line.
Then I'll be blunt: why can't you accept that Pop makes mistakes without trying to find some ulterior motive that, as you said, would "explain away any questionable decisions but also prove his genius"? I think it wasn't wrong to run the same play in that situation but let's say it was. Why isn't that something that makes sense to you? He screwed up because he's not perfect. Why mythologize or rationalize everything the guy does?
I suppose it's just difficult for me to think that I could see a basketball situation better than Pop does. My default mode is "Pop knows best" and I suppose I am suffering from cognitive dissonance concerning that final play.
When you are on the road, you don't go for overtime. You play to win. Even more so in a Game 7. The idea that Pop didn't have another play is anathema to me.
I don't want to mythologize, but I've seen him pull out a seemingly endless array of excellent out of bounds plays for three-pointers. They don't always work, but they've always been there.
Maybe it boils down to this: it's easier for me to believe that Pop had a subconscious desire that derailed him, than that he made a decision that I consider to be a poor one.
Ah, there it is. Now it makes total sense to me. Pop is to you what Manu was to me and what dads are to most kids: a hero who represents the best a person can be. Even his mishaps are somehow noble.
To you, Pop is always prepared, always ready to come up with a solution. You probably aspire to be like that, just like I used to aspire to be a creative genius like Manu. All his mistakes were the result of others not getting it. If he passed to the corner, then someone should have been in that corner, dammit! And the weird part is most of the time, that was actually true!
But at some point I started noticing that some of those turnovers were just mental errors or the result of physical limitations. At some point we all realize our dads are not invincible. We fight that realization because it means we will never be invincible either.
This might be the moment when the cognitive dissonance gets too overwhelming for you to ignore. Because Pop surely knows best but he's far from this perfect, magical being who is always in control. Sometimes he panics and runs the same play twice because he's too angry to draw up something else or he just thinks it could work.
Is that something that makes sense or is it the most condescending thing you've ever read?
It's not condescending at all. In fact, it shines a huge light on the pedestal I've put Pop on for all these years. I feel really weird now, like when Anton Ego tries Remy's dish in Ratatouille.
I'm typing this on my phone as Mrs. Wilco and I are driving all the jrwlings down for a week at Disneyworld, and I just turned to her and told her how funny it was that this conversation had become more about me, than Pop or the Spurs. And then you sent your last reply.
My mind is nearly blown, and I'm really not sure where to go from here. What did you do when you realized the way you had been idolizing Manu?
The funny thing is, it never goes away. Not when the object of our idolization is as worthy as Manu or Pop. Every time Manu does something special I have to fight the urge to let that moment re-signify my previous assessments of him.
The only reason I can live with Manu being flawed and vulnerable and almost aggressively self-aware of his limitations is because I've torn down all of the idols in my life. No one is perfect, nothing is the way it's supposed to be. I don't need perfection anymore because I don't believe in it.
And in fact it's that self-awareness that at some point I mistook for false modesty that makes me love Manu -- and Pop -- now. They are genuinely saying that they are not perfect. And we should embrace them for that instead of trying to conjure up theories that erase those flaws to suit our idealized images of them.
I have a question for you now: how did we end up discussing this when we started up talking about the last play of Game 7?! Things get weird when the Spurs are bounced early in the playoffs.
The thing is, I know precisely how we got here from game 7 because the entire thing is simultaneously intricately connected and simply laid out in front of me like a perfectly straight line.
Essentially, Pop is both brilliant and fallible. And that's not only OK, it's beautiful. It's the only way he could be, given the impossibility of achieving perfection.
What's so funny to me is that all along I would have said that my attitude toward Pop was one of faux-reverence and my insistence of his infallibility was mostly in jest. But then there's this huge disconnect I had between what I saw, and what I'd allow myself to think.
Sports can make you a little crazy, can't they? Or maybe they just highlight the insanity that's already there.